Yet, in Feiling’s eyes, this remote outpost and its capital, New Westminster, serves as a symbolic microcosm for Britain’s place in the world. ‘The more I read about it, and what followed it,’ he writes, ‘the more convinced I became that I had hit upon a neat précis of the story of how Britain became a world power.’
It’s a bold and indeed questionable claim, but there can be no doubt that what unfolds is a quite remarkable story. Far from England’s shores, Feiling paints a vivid and entertaining picture of Caribbean and Central American exploration, including the immense depths to which piracy played a role in the battle between European nations to stake their claim on the treasures they were finding across the Atlantic. Details of first encounters with indigenous communities – such as the natives of the Miskito coast – reveal a wild, natural environment, and a diversity of customs that simply no longer exist. The Miskitos in particular became firm allies of the English settlers, quickly and willingly adopting their beliefs and lifestyles; one young man even travelling to England for education and to entertain the court of King Charles. For this community, at least, it appears to have been a genuine alliance and trading of knowledge, as opposed to the barbaric practices more commonly associated with the colonial period.
“‘It was strange to think that the hopes of a generation of British empire-builders had once rested on Providence,’ Feiling ponders”
The key narrative he repeatedly underlines is the paralleling of Providence with the settlements in New England, where the passengers of the Mayflower had landed a decade earlier. It becomes strikingly unbelievable that of these two bases – one blessed with good weather and fertile soils, the other inflicted with harsh winters and rampant diseases - somehow it was the Pilgrims of Massachusetts who ended up thriving and eventually forming the most powerful nation in the world, while their rivals in Providence were snuffed out after barely more than a decade. ‘Cold, barren New England had trumped balmy, verdant Providence,’ he writes.
The juxtaposition of these respective fortunes is perhaps best outlined in the case of Henry Halhead, once Mayor of Banbury, who opted to head for the New World with his family in 1631 after fire destroyed much of the town. ‘Had he gone to Massachusetts, his name might today be known to every American schoolchild,’ writes Feiling. ‘Instead, he sailed for a tiny island in the Caribbean, vowing to stay there “until the isle of Great Britain, being about to be born again into a new and free state, might deservedly be christened the isle of Providence”’.
Over the years, Providence experienced a tumultuous existence, growing from minor experiment to place of national significance – a prime location for piracy upon passing Spanish ships – before the rot eventually set in. The ignorance of those who called the shots when it came to growing economically viable crops and making the island profitable certainly didn’t help. Experience counted for little, while money, privilege and a good, Puritan upbringing enabled the most inexperienced Englishman to become a key figure in the island’s fortunes
Two hundred or so pages in, the story shifts, and becomes a first-person account of Feiling’s personal trip to Providence, a behind-the-scenes of how he uncovered these in-depth stories about the island’s history. His experience is engaging, and how Providence’s dramatic birth has manifested itself in the multicultural modern Colombian archipelago of ‘San Andrés and Providencia’ is fascinating.
It is remarkable how much importance was once attributed to a patch of land which was later ignored by the competing European powers entirely, ultimately mostly taken advantage of by stateless pirates stalking merchant vessels across the Caribbean. For all the blood spilt over the sovereignty of the island, it’s now barely a footnote in the popular history of these vast empires – as if it really had ‘disappeared’.